Saturday, 4 April 2009

Panic on the Streets of London... Part 1

Quick panorama of Climate Camp in the City from Jamie Potter on Vimeo
I arrived early into Euston and sauntered down to Kings Cross to waste some time and see if there were any internet cafes around. It could have been any other day in London, if this little part of it was anything to go by. People went about their usual business; travellers, tourists and workers in a world of their own, seemingly ignorant of the burgeoning protests not that far away in the Square Mile. The police presence around North London's three major stations was barely noticeable. Not having any luck with the internet cafe I decided to just get a move on and get to the City.

At the ticket machines in Kings Cross tube station I came across my first 'comrades'. Two sun-kissed guys in their early twenties, wearing sunglasses and hoodies. One of them also wore a 'Make Poverty History' bandana; the other carried a barrel drum. I introduced myself with a hushed voice lest an underground official hear us, caught up in the rebellious nature of the protests, despite the fact that hoodies, bandanas, drums, long hair and woolly, green hippy jumpers clearly shouted 'demonstrator'. Only moments earlier, a poor tourist with a strong French accent was collared by security for taking an interest in the control room next to the ticket machines. Not on the Undergound son, that's just asking for trouble.

My fellow protesters turned out to be from Azerbaijan, studying in London, veterans of previous protests and on their way to join the G20 Meltdown processions. We hopped on the tube and headed towards Liverpool Street. I wasn't sure if this was a good idea - Climate Camp had warned that police would be targeting the major stations in the City - but the Azerbaijanis seemed to know what they were doing. When we arrived we pulled up our hoods and I covered my face with my scarf. There was a clear police presence inside the station but apart from a few stares nobody approached us.

Outside, on the actual Liverpool Street entrance, there was already a crowd of protesters corralled by the police in the street. They stood in absolute silence but there was a palpable tension in the air. Just as many onlookers were gathered around taking pictures and other protesters were arriving behind us, unsure of what to do after seeing the police block. We headed back through the station and out the second exit, a new recruit amongst us; a white-haired middle aged lady (who I later learnt was once sectioned) with a packed shopping trolley in tow.

Outside this entrance a larger, boisterous crowd had gathered on the steps and pavement with little if any police. Composed mainly of young people dressed brightly and in fancy dress, the atmosphere was excited and jovial and made for a picturesque sight in the spring sun. I ditched the hood and scarf realising it would be both hot and futile to keep it up all day. With so many others carefree and scarf-free, it would also likely invite hostility from the police. A few drums starting banging and the numbers spilled on to the street. An impromptu procession, led by the formative corps of a samba band, marched around the corner to join the other protesters. With the Climate Camp 'swoop'' not due for another hour I decided to join in.

As we brought up the rear the police line turned and began to walk us through the streets of the city, towards the Bank of England. The samba beat led us past the Deutsche Bank building, where workers stood at their windows smirking but ignored by protesters who thronged the streets below and halted buses full of bemused passengers as cheers, jeers, horns and whistles rang out through the canyons of capitalism.

Soon we arrived at Prince St, a short, narrow road down the side of the Bank of England leading to Threadneedle St. At the end, our march converged with the other protesters and the full scale of the protest dawned on us. The entire square swarmed with protesters, literally thousands of them. People stood on statues, railings and above Underground stations, waving flags, placards and whooping and whistling. But minutes after our march converged, a single line of flourescent clad policemen formed across Prince Street.

The atmosphere changed instantly, from angry, yet peaceful, to angry and edgy. The police weren't wearing riot gear but their sheer presence was enough to irritate protesters. A few chants of 'fascists' rang out, attracting dozens of photographers and cameramen to this particular 'frontline'. A couple of protesters shoved the police and vice versa, it was hard to tell who did what first, and the click and whurr of cameras was audible. It soon calmed down and for about five minutes the march was on tenterhooks as police and protesters exchanged the odd push. All the time the samba band banged their drums and with no particular signal, our procession spontaneously stepped forward as one and continued going, breaking through the flimsy but symbolic police line. Cheers rang out around the square as we were once again united in protest.

With my slightly mental older friend, who refused to share her name, I ventured into the square itself. Police lined all the exits, but they were letting people in and out. People of all descriptions had assembled and few wore the telltale accessories of the violent anarchists. This early in the day, peace still reigned supreme. We hung around for a few minutes before deciding to head off and seek out the climate camp, collecting some other girls who were also looking for the camp. The police let us through the line with no questions asked and we started on the two minute walk to Bishopsgate where the camp was supposed to establish itself. There had been rumours that the camp would locate elsewhere as the police were aware of our intentions, but we arrived to a scattered but ever increasing crowd of onlookers and protesters. Police and meat wagons were parked down Bishopsgate and the campers simply stood on the pavement, unsure of what to do as workers and tourists streamed by.

We headed further down, closer to the junction with Wormwood St, when it began. A small band of campers, led by People and Planet, sprung their pop-up tents in the road. The police pounced and tried to remove them forcefully but a crowd of protesters and media surrounded them. The crowd swelled and disparate cries of 'get in the street!' and 'pitch your tents' rang out. Within seconds pop-up tents appeared out of nowhere amongst cries of laughter and a fevered hustle and bustle. The police were overwhelmed - many onlookers turned out to be campers themselves - and retreated to the pavement. Within minutes traffic disappeared, the streets filled with smiling people and the huge 'Nature doesn't do bailouts' banner had been stretched between traffic lights. We'd reclaimed the streets!

Bishopsgate was now a hive of activity. More tents popped-up, bunting was strung between lamp-posts, protesters in costumes had climbed on top of a bus shelter with a boom box and flags and somebody circled the camp handing out chunks of coloured chalk. I spotted a friend from Leicester who works for People and Planet and parked my sleeping bag by his tent. He'd been one of the first to set up camp and the police had tried dragging him away by his ankles before everybody else just piled in. Some of the West Midlands campers I recognised from the Spotted Dog turned up out of nowhere and set up their camp next to the People and Planet tents whilst Camila and Rose, the two girls I'd met at the Bank, sat watching a game of Twister unfold.

At either end of the street, bicycles had been lashed together and stretched across the thoroughfare to create a barricade of sorts. Policemen lined these limits but most were smiling and people could come and go as they pleased. Again, workers in the buildings that towered over us stared and pointed from their windows, but we didn't care one jot. I grabbed a piece of pink chalk and had a moment of inspiration. A well known slogan from the May 1968 protests popped into my head and I ran to the pavement to scrawl "Under the paving stones, the beach", as people hurried around me. One bolshy female cop grabbed my arm and heaved me up shouting "Enough of that, that's criminal damage!" but it was too late, I'd already drawn on the pavement. It was an apt slogan I thought. Here in the heart of the City, the heart of capitalism, a band of 'crusties', 'hippies' and curious young party-goers had taken over the cold concrete streets and turned them into a back-to-basics festival of sustainable living and respect for one another and the environment. Just beyond the Northern limit, cranes heaved materials up the side of the half finished Heron Tower, in stark contrast to the tents and bunting below.

My chalking was rudimentary compared to the artworks on the other side of the street, with detailed pictures of the globe, planes, fire and other climate change-related iconography now adorning the sidewalk. We were at the Northern limit of the camp, mainly a tent city, but a few hundred metres further south was the business end. A white gazebo was assembled with astonishing speed and was soon dishing out vegan food from its carbon-free kitchen, whilst a number of pedal powered sound systems doled out reggae vibes as the smell of cannabis wafted through the air. Three spaces had been set aside throughout the camp, marked clearly with chalk as workshop areas one, two and three, and within a couple of hours these were occupied by the bums of campers who listened attentively to such speakers as Oscar Reyes of the Transnational Institute, speaking about the fallacies of carbon trading, sparking debate and discussion from the audience.

By now, I'd hooked up with a Spanish friend, Paty, who studies at the University of East London and she was telling me about the dismay amongst the students who had planned an alternative G20 summit there only for university authorities to scupper it at the last minute, out of 'security concerns'. We sat chatting in the sun, which beat down strong in a cloudless sky, talking about the climate, protest and apathy, inspired by what was happening around us.

A middle-aged man with short brown hair, a white t-shirt and black trousers stood in the middle of the tents holding a sign saying something like 'protest is wrong' and started booming about how disruptive we were. Campers turned and listened to his little soliloquy. "I've lost my five hundred grand a year job and you're out here taking over the streets" he shouted with a wry little smile and then we realised he was a wind-up. He turned over the placard and it read 'Everything is OK'. People started cheering as he turned the tired old anti-protest arguments on their head and fired them back at the bankers. As he finished more people shouted and applauded and I caught sight of his t-shirt which said: "God is too big to fit into one religion."

Continue reading... Part 2

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